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ICTU reservations on EU remain valid despite taking Brussels soup

While the press office line and media take on the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) celebration of ‘Europe Day’ is very much as you might expect in emphasising their adoration of the Golden Calf of Brussels, their publication, Workers and the EU: Reflections on Ireland’s Membership contains some interesting gems, although most of them of historical rather than contemporary note.

In contrast to Sinn Féin and the Labour Party, the ICTU has at least not excised their initial opposition to membership of the then European Economic Community (EEC) from its historical memory.  Patricia O’Donovan’s piece on the ICTU’s decision to campaign for a No vote in the 1973 referendum (a summary of an earlier paper from 1999) might appear anachronistic now, but the basic reasons for opposing membership still stand.

While current General Secretary Owen Reidy and others appear to believe that people here would still be stuck in some 1960s time warp with regard to wage levels and other “immense progress” had the Republic not joined the EU, the basic argument from the left and trade union and nationalist perspective – before they became completely divorced – remains just as relevant.

That focused on “loss of effective control of political and economic policy.” While supporters of that surrender of sovereignty from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and Sinn Féin to the ICTU and the employer’s organisations may argue that it was worth the cost, the truth of that remains.


Interestingly, one of the reasons cited by the ICTU campaign against membership – as was central to the Sinn Féin opposition to the EEC since the first application was made in 1961 – was the impact that migration would have on wages and employment conditions in Ireland.  That issue was revisited in 2008 by then General Secretary David Begg.

Begg had addressed a conference on the question of whether EU enlargement and the free movement of workers from the new accession states would lead to displacement.  There would be no question of the ICTU now participating in any such debate that did not adopt the sort of simplicities we highlighted last week in our look at their scare movie on the For Roysh, so kudos for their having republished this.

This is especially true given that Begg admitted that the trade unions had basically been misled over the creation of an “unregulated labour market” inspired by “the neo-liberal viewpoint” with all that entails in terms of “a sharp rise in the incidence of exploitation and abuse.” While Begg cited overall figures that appeared to disprove an overall pattern of displacement, he did recognise it as a factor in many low-paid sectors.


David Begg, former General Secretary of ICTU, 2008.


More recent statistics, as we have highlighted previously, with regard to the preponderance of new jobs in the technological sector being filled by people coming to Ireland to work from overseas, proves that, whatever about the technical accuracy of the term “displacement”,  non-Irish workers form a large and steadily increasing proportion of the work force.

As we have also shown, that has certainly not benefitted the trade unions whose membership within the private sector has slumped dramatically, to around 12%. Of course, very few workers who travel to Ireland to take up jobs, whether in the lower paid service sectors or in the IT giants, join a trade union.

Irish workers in sectors like retail and the bar trade, once highly unionised, find it increasingly impossible to maintain those organisations in the face of workers from overseas who are happy for the most part to accept conditions that the unions which formally represent those sectors oppose.

Likewise the claim that everyone who comes to Ireland comes to work and is a positive contributor to society is patently not true. This reality is ignored by supporters of mass immigration, including many on the Left, who juxtapose this myth of “highly educated working taxpayers” to a lumpen proletariat of thick Paddys and Patsys who ought to shut up and be grateful for whatever happens.

Gript has previously published a piece which showed that the claims regarding education qualifications do not support that claim.  And as recent CSO labour force figures show, over 30% of those claiming unemployment benefit are non-Irish nationals. There are other statistics, as well as common sense perceptions, and the lived experience of communities across the island that paint an equally unrosy picture of the consequences of mass immigration.

Which brings us back to David Beggs’ observation 15 years ago that while the initial experience of immigration in the labour market was associated with a period of economic expansion and low unemployment – something that still remains true – “the onset of recession may bring forward some more acute challenges.”

However, even in the midst of the current period, the official statistics such as GDP growth, revenue take and public spending, it is apparent that even many people who are working find themselves in sometimes difficult situations.  The problem of accessing housing and accommodation costs are one aspect of this. So do is today’s report that 25% of households and small businesses are in arrears on their gas bills.

There are many other aspects of modern Ireland – much of them a direct consequence of demographic and societal change unprecedented in the history of the state – that illustrate the axiom that a healthy economy is not necessarily a healthy society. And the more that Ireland becomes primarily a factor in the supply line of international capital and its needs, the more true that becomes.

That’s the reality that the ICTU itself realised in 1973, before it along with almost everyone else in official Ireland took the Brussels soup, or bromide or whatever it is.

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